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Published Date: February 13, 2017

Published Date: February 13, 2017

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February Isn’t Enough: The Historical Erasure of Black Women

When I was a young sprout and a budding Christian feminist, I had a lot of love for the American suffragettes. Blind love, as it turned out. Years of conversations with women of color and some harsh lessons on intersectional feminism (as well as womanism, mujerista theology, native feminism, etc.) revealed that my feminist history was narrow and exclusive and likewise, so was my feminism.

Some of my early feminist heroes, like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were not allies to women of color, particularly the black women we honor in February (Black History Month in the US). And in fact, some of those feminist heroes actively held racist beliefs about black people and, in many cases, deliberately excluded black women—from the fight for suffrage and later from the feminist movement.

I am grateful for the rights that I now have because of the courage and tenacity of those early suffrage-fighters. Their persistence deserves to be celebrated. However, I now hold that gratitude in tension with the ugly knowledge that what was intended for my liberation was not intended for the liberation of all women.

Now, of course, there were some early white evangelical feminists who were concerned with the liberation of all women. They fought racism and sexism in tandem beside women of color. Their faith informed their commitment to intersectional feminism—before intersectional feminism was even a term!

But it’s important to acknowledge that feminism has historically been white-centric. The needs, perspectives, stories, history, and liberation of white women have almost always trumped the needs, perspectives, stories, history, and liberation of black women and, indeed, all women of color. And sadly, that remains true in so many ways. 

As egalitarians or Christian feminists, this news should grieve us, perhaps even more so than our secular brothers and sisters. The erasure of women of color ought to leave us with haunted, Holy Spirit-convicted goosebumps. Because if we believe that women of color bear the sacred image of our Creator, then the oppression of women of color in any context is a high crime against both them and God. 

It’s easy to feel defeated when you find out that a movement you respect and identify with is imperfect. It’s even more distressing to discover that it has actually harmed and oppressed women you care about. But this isn’t the part where we give up. This is the part where we repent, educate ourselves, and resolve to do better.

That’s why an intersectional feminist history is essential. An intersectional feminist history allows us to repent of sins past and pesent while retaining hope for a better future. It enables us to discern where we have prioritized white women over women of color. An intersectional feminist history helps us fill in the gaps of our theology and our worldview. It reminds us of where we have failed to honor the image of God in women of color. It calls us to do better.

This is why celebrations like Black History Month are vital for Christian feminists and egalitarians. They remind us that it’s not enough to spotlight black women in the month of February. It’s not enough to talk about the ongoing reality of racism once a year. Our faith calls us to be justice-doers every single day. We must discipline ourselves to see, hear, centralize, and celebrate the stories of women of color.

So in honor of black history month in particular, and in acknowledgment of my own shortcomings as an ally to women of color, I’d like to offer three strategies toward an intersectional feminist history, strategies we feminists need to be using all year, at all times.

1. Look for the places where white women or middle/upper class women dominated the narrative.

When feminists/egalitarians look for the hidden narratives of women in history, they deliberately search for places where women have been silenced. To identify where women were excluded, we often look for places where men dominated the narrative.

Likewise, when searching for the hidden narratives of women of color, we must look for where their opinions and stories are conspicuously missing. In other words, we must identify places where white women or upper/middle class women dominated the narrative.

For example, women of color were not given the same platform within the early suffrage movement that white women enjoyed. In fact, some suffragettes deliberately denied black women that platform. So we must ask ourselves what the absence of women of color’s voices and stories tells us about a specific event/period/movement in history. 

2. Acknowledge the need for a broader, more nuanced approach to history.

A narrow approach to history takes a period, event, or movement, even a positive and empowering one, at face value. It often assumes a blanket experience of all women and thus, employs a blanket strategy for liberating them.

But an intersectional feminist approach to history acknowledges that there were times when some women benefitted from a movement or event at the expense of other women. An intersectional feminist also notes that all women do not share the same experience and thus cannot all be freed in the exact same way.

For example, women won the right to vote in 1920, but black women could not freely exercise their right to vote until the 1960s because of racial prejudice and legal obstructions. So, while gaining the right to vote was a major win for women, many black women could not actually use that hard-won freedom. Thus, their experience of the 19th amendment was radically different from the experience of white women. 

3. Be humble and open to correction.

One of the most important principles of intersectional feminism is the ability to speak and receive hard truths. When a woman of color tells me that my feminism is narrow and exclusive, I take her at her word. When a woman of color tells me that my historical lens is one-sided, I take her at her word. I acknowledge her correction with an open heart, and I repent of the ways in which racism has infiltrated my narrative and worldview. 

Instead of being offended by her criticism, I find love in her careful analysis. She is speaking a hard truth to me. It is my task, as her sister in Christ, to receive her hard truth and be changed by it.

It is not enough to be a Christian feminist or egalitarian. It is not enough to believe in gender equality. It is not enough to celebrate black people during Black History Month. No, if these movements and theologies falter at the intersection of race and class, then they aren’t for all women. We must embrace an intersectional history and worldview if we truly hope to liberate all women.

To my sisters of color past and present: I honor you, this month and always. I will listen to you. I will fight for you and with you. I repent of my sins against you—personally and institutionally. I promise to repent again when I fall short. And I resolve to do better. 

I acknowledge that my understanding of intersectional feminism is incomplete. I welcome constructive critique and hard truths, especially from my sisters of color, on this issue.